Conservatism: The Making of Good Men

Two major premises to start: (1) Human corruption tends to reverse the natural poles of good and evil in the mind, clouding the moral judgment, and producing either weak and timid behavior on behalf of the good or behavior that is downright corrupt. (2) The pursuit of power magnifies this natural human tendency by orders of magnitude. [So began my talk to the Falcon Republican Club near Colorado Springs on September 22. It continued as follows:]

My suggestion to you tonight is that in the year 2007, we are living amidst the decay and corruption of American political structures due to the pervasive influence of human vice.

On the political left, this reversal of the poles of good and evil in the mind has reached its most hardened political expression in the institutions of the Democratic Party.

On the political right, embodied particularly by the Republican Party, the pursuit of power has done the following:

a) attracted those who are led by mere self-interest or social history, or who see in the Party an avenue for personal promotion; and

b) it has turned men and women who previously were innocently passionate and courageous on behalf of the public good – this is why they got involved in the Party in the first place – into men and women who now are passionate about their own political security and promotion, and who, though they may still believe in the conservative platform, are using the platform more to enable personal security, promotion, and prestige than to courageously contend for what is right, and who in many cases are now involved in slandering and marginalizing the very type of people whom they themselves used to be.

In many cases, this has turned friend against friend, colleague against colleague, Christian sibling against Christian sibling, and even spouse against spouse, in most cases never to be reconciled. And what is so sinister about this is that the more a politico becomes guilty of this kind of behavior, the more he deceives himself as to his own innocence.

What I’m saying is that the pursuit of power in the Republican Party has destroyed integrity and character, it has destroyed families, and it has destroyed in large measure the post-war conservative movement.

Former Chairman of the Federal Reserve, Alan Greenspan, in his much-awaited book called The Age of Turbulence just released, gets this point exactly right. The book is self-aggrandizing and silly in many places, including some condescension toward Ronald Reagan, but Greenspan gets this point exactly right. He says he advised Bush to veto some spending bills the Republican congress was sending him, but instead Bush and the Republicans swapped principle for power, ending up with neither. This is exactly what Bush and the Republicans did, and yet Bush was taken totally by surprise when the GOP got drubbed in the 2006 elections.

Bush should be given due credit for his firmness on the war, his appointment so far of good Supreme Court justices, and his strength on behalf of lower taxes and in opposition to any tax increase. But No Child Left Behind, McCain-Feingold, excessive spending and regulation, giving the Democrats Don Rumsfeld’s scalp after the 2006 losses, and his equivocation in diplomacy toward Israel and advocacy of a Palestinian state have all been disasters.

The Republican collapse in Colorado began long before it materialized nationally. It began with the election of Gov. Bill Owens in 1998 and showed perhaps its most ugly manifestation in 2004 with the political betrayal of Bob Schaffer. Mr. Schaffer, like Congressman Doug Lamborn, is one of the great and good figures currently on the Colorado political landscape, and bad faith toward men like this says more about the Party than it does about the men themselves.

A few minutes ago I mentioned passion for the public good as what motivates so many Republicans to become activists and many to eventually run for office. The next natural question is, what is good?

Let’s start with a reminder of what isn’t good. There are seven classical vices, sometimes called the seven deadly sins, and I want to suggest to you that they extensively characterize not only American politics today, but American cultural life in general.

1. Lust. Sen. Larry Craig. Rep. Mark Foley. Rev. Ted Haggard. Rep. Bob Livingston, who was next in line for House Speaker but whose extramarital affair came to light at the same time Bill Clinton’s affair and perjury did. Pedophilia by priests in the Roman Catholic Church. Millions of pornographic web sites, with homosexuality making its way further and further even into social conservative ranks. This is lust.

2. Gluttony. It doesn’t simply refer to overeating. Refers to over-indulgence in any pleasure beyond what is normal and healthy. According to the New York Post of Feb 14, chairman and CEO of one of the world’s largest private equity groups held a party to celebrate his 60th birthday and his recent consummation of the largest private equity buyout in history. There was a private concert by Rod Stewart, for which Stewart was paid $1 million, and food, beverage, and décor that brought the total bill to over $3 million. This is gluttony. To be clear, being wealthy is no crime, throwing an expensive party is no crime, living at a high level is no crime. But there does reach a point where the ostentatious display and expenditure of wealth strikes any healthy person as excessive. In politics, legislative spending at any level is gluttonous, plain and simple. There is not a single public legislative body anywhere in the U.S., including in heavily Republican areas like El Paso County, that is anywhere close to the kind of fiscal sanity that normal people and businesses have to live by just to survive. Public spending is gluttonous and is reminiscent of the late Roman Empire.

3. Sloth. Laziness. Interestingly, the sin of sloth was originally called the sin of sadness. Why? Because work and joy go together. Hard work makes people joyful and content with life. Sloth and sadness go together. Welfare programs beginning with FDR, but growing rapidly under Lyndon Johnson in the 1960’s, devalued the importance of work and taught entire generations of modern people that the government owes them health care, a school loan below market rates and with generous payback terms, and an unemployment check while between jobs. This led to such institutionalized laziness, primarily on the part of men in the inner city, that by the 1990’s a Republican-controlled Congress sent President Clinton a good welfare reform bill three times before he signed it. The bill placed limits on how long someone could live on the public dole. Opponents said welfare reform would force many into begging or crime. People had a right to be on the dole, they essentially said. Actually, the bill has reduced the number of welfare recipients by 57% since it was passed in 1996, and places like big-city-dominated Illinois have seen reductions as high as 86%. Why? Because sloth is a vice, and it is the purpose of law to restrain vice, not encourage and fund it.

4. Greed. Contra Gordon Gecko, greed is not good. Greed is the inordinate desire for material things beyond what is wise and healthy, and which leads one to do things that are not wise, honest, or healthy. I want to refer here to the cases of people like Joseph Nacchio, Bernie Ebbers, Charles Keating, Martha Stewart, and similar high-profile white-collar crime cases, but not in the way you are used to hearing about them. The greed in these cases was not on the part of these giants of business, who not only raised everyone’s standard of living through their heroic innovation and management talent, but made thousands of others wealthy in addition to themselves. Not only this, but they used their wealth philanthropically. Keating donated millions to Mother Teresa. Ebbers was a church-going Southern Baptist who doubtless gave a load to his church and church-related activities. Nacchio was the son of a Brooklyn longshoreman who doubled as a bartender at night – in other words, he was from the lower classes. He pulled himself up by his own bootstraps. Martha Stewart, the woman who decorated America’s homes, is an evil criminal?

None of the charges against these people had any merit, friends, and in most cases the charges on which they were convicted were not even part of the original charges levied against them. Martha Stewart, for example, was first charged with insider trading, then those charges against her were dropped and new ones instituted for lying to regulators about the original charges. A similar strategy was followed by current leading Republican presidential nominee, Rudy Guiliani, who began his political career by prosecuting the famous 1980’s junk bond cases against Ivan Boesky and Michael Milken. Neither did anything wrong except help new businesses get started by developing the market for high-risk bonds. Yet Guiliani, then U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York, charged Milken with 98 counts of racketeering and fraud before settling a plea deal with Milken on 6 – six! – lesser charges. He intimidated Milken with the 98 charges into accepting a plea deal on 6 different charges. Milken was sentenced to 10 years and was out in less than two. Since then he has donated millions to philanthropic medical research and a new private Jewish high school in Bel-Air, California.

The convictions of these successful people represent not the triumph of justice against greed, as has been played in the media and political circles, but the triumph of greed against justice, and the triumph of central financial decision-making against those who make possible the greatest poverty-destroying machine in world history: American-style moral capitalism. Those guilty of greed in each of these cases were attorneys and government regulators who saw deep pockets and a friendly political environment in which to pillage those deep pockets and promote themselves in government. The only difference between them and Michael Nifong, the DA in the absurd Duke rape case who has now been rightly disgraced for the absurd politicized charges he pursued against innocent people, is that Nifong got caught.

5. Anger. Wrath. Any society overcome with vice in general is going to be overcome with anger. Why? Because confrontation of the guilty by the truth or by the law almost always produces the additional vice of wrath. Guilty people do not like to admit they are guilty or have been wrong, and get angry when confronted. It is what led William F. Buckley to state famously in his 1953 book *God and Man at Yale*, which helped launch the post-war conservative movement: “It is always interesting to watch the reaction of people to the telling of the truth.” President Clinton’s wrath was manifest when he was questioned on video by independent counsel. When Sen. Larry Craig was asked by a reporter what he was going to do after resigning from office, Craig said, “We’ll fight this like hell.” Apparently Craig is angry about the evil frame job that had been perpetrated against him by an airport policeman who doesn’t know what he’s doing. Murder is commonplace on the front pages of the news, often even by one spouse against another, because the vice of wrath is now an epidemic in our political and general culture, and we cover our sins of wrath by presenting them as righteous indignation.

6. The last two of the seven deadly sins you know: envy and pride. Envy is jealousy. Wanting what someone else has. Pride, or arrogance, in turn, is the root of all human vice. It says, I determine what is right and what I will do, and nobody will hold me to a standard higher than myself. C.S. Lewis once wrote that pride is how the Devil became the Devil. I will be like the Most High.

Friends, there is no characteristic more prominent in our politics and in our common life today than pride: black, corrosive, friendship and family ruining, integrity and virtue killing, party, state, and nation destroying pride. We will be like the Most High. We will be a law unto ourselves.

One additional word on pride. If you are proud, you are a fool. There are 7 billion people currently on earth, and you are one of them. And that doesn’t even count those who lived before you and who will live after you. Congressman Lamborn is a pretty important man, a congressman. But he is one of 435. He represents exactly 2.2 tenths of one percent of the current House of Representatives, and that doesn’t count those who went before and will go after. The President of the United States is the most powerful man in the world. President Bush is one of 43 American presidents, meaning he represents about 2.3% of the historic American presidency. And that doesn’t count those who will go after him. The American presidency, in turn, is only 230 years old, so even if we assume the youngest possible date for the age of the earth of about 6,000 years, Mr. Bush’s 2.3% share of the historic presidency represents 9 one-hundredths of one percent of the history of international power. Friends, in the big scheme of things, even the president is nobody. If you are proud, you are a fool.

If we understand how truly small we are, we understand how easy it has been for Christian people to sing across the ages songs like this one by George Beverly Shea, long-time friend of Billy Graham:

I’d rather have Jesus than silver or gold, I’d rather be His than have riches untold, I’d rather have Jesus than houses or lands, I’d rather be led by His nail-pierced hand.

I’d rather have Jesus than men’s applause; I’d rather be faithful to His dear cause; I’d rather have Jesus than world-wide fame, I’d rather be true to His holy name.

Than to be the king of a vast domain, Or be held in sin’s dread sway, I’d rather have Jesus than anything This world affords today.

Which leads me to the good news after all this bad news. There are virtues that oppose these vices in which we are mired. The opposite of lust is chastity. Not no sex at all, but sex disciplined by marriage – monogamous heterosexual marriage – or no sex at all. The opposite of gluttony is self-restraint. The opposite of sloth is diligence. The opposite of greed is generosity. The opposite of anger is honesty, peace, and, where necessary, forgiveness. The opposite of envy is kindness or admiration. And the opposite of pride is humility. Think of what politics would look like, and what a nation would look like, which elevates and honors these characteristics in our leaders, and which honors men like Congressman Doug Lamborn who have displayed these virtues for decades in public life, rather than attacking, opposing, and belittling them.

Now three points in closing:

First: Ronald Reagan’s name and legacy are invoked way too often by people who don’t understand that legacy, but what was it about him that inspired the entire post-war conservative movement? I suggest it was the humble strength with which he carried himself: no pride, no envy, no wrath, no lust, no greed, no sloth, no gluttony. In a word, he was the kind of genuinely good man who genuinely understands the conservative idea and who is created by the work of the conservative idea in the soul. His kind of man is the only kind who is worthy to rule.

Second: Ladies, you’ll understand me here, I trust. What we need in the conservative movement in every generation is what the Marine Corps needs in every generation: a few good men. It doesn’t take many, and indeed we recognize there will never be many. But we need a few. Everyone knows this truth; it is the enduring power of a slogan like the Marine Corps’, or like the words placed over a prominent overpass at the Air Force Academy until the feminists got them a few years ago: "Bring Me Men." What do these slogans mean? They obviously don’t mean that women are incapable of the virtue to which we refer. They simply are an appeal to the ancient kind of rare courage – courage to fight for what is true – that we all naturally associate with virtuous and heroic masculinity. These are the kind of men every nation and every conservative party needs, and these are the kind of men we need in the Republican Party today.

Finally: The political hope of our nation, indeed, the political hope of the world, lies in exactly the place you have been told so often and so vociferously is the last place you should look for that hope – the conservative wing of American politics. The conservative wing of the American political spectrum represents the last vestige of the historic western political tradition, and the ideas for which it stands, the truths it holds dear, the sanctities it defends, the political potential it still holds to implement those ideas on the world stage, and the good political men it creates, are the last, best political hope for mankind on earth.